Early childhood leaders explore the intersection of technology and early literacy

Recognizing that relationships are foundational to a young child’s development, leaders from the education, nonprofit, and policy sectors convened at Erikson Institute in December to explore how the purposeful use of technology between adults and children can support language development and early literacy.

Geoffrey A. Nagle, Erikson's president and chief executive officer, kicks off the Breakthroughs in Parent Engagement and Early Literacy forum.

Geoffrey A. Nagle, Erikson’s president and chief executive officer, kicks off the Breakthroughs in Parent Engagement and Early Literacy forum.

Breakthroughs in Parent Engagement and Early Literacy, co-sponsored by New America, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, and Erikson’s Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center, offered an opportunity for leaders in the child development field to share insights, research findings, and focused conversation on the promise of technology as a tool that can enhance learning and development in and out of the classroom while engaging families across cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

“Erikson has elevated the work being done to navigate the intersection of technology and early learning, and we understand that by thinking together, we can find ways to use technology intentionally and appropriately to support learning and development,” said Chip Donohue, director of the TEC Center at Erikson.

Chip Donohue, director of the TEC Center at Erikson, talks about the importance of helping educators develop as "media mentors" for families and children.

Chip Donohue, director of the TEC Center at Erikson, talks about the importance of helping educators develop as “media mentors” for families and children.

Presenters called attention to specific digital tools, from smartphones to tablets, and the roles they can play in children’s development while also recognizing the importance of the human interactions behind them.

“Children experience the world through relationships. So we need to ask, ‘What is technology’s role in that relationship? Does it enhance it? Does it hinder it? Does it do both?’” asked Geoffrey A. Nagle, Erikson’s president and chief executive officer, as he convened the half-day forum. “This area is so important to Erikson that we made it a key part of our strategic plan. Through outreach, policy, and practice, our goal is to inform the mindful integration of technology and media to improve the well being of children, families, and communities.”

InTEL Screen Grab

Integrating Technology and Early Literacy, or InTel, was introduced during the forum. Click the image to explore the tool.

An innovative new tool for families made its public debut at the forum with the unveiling of Integrating Technology and Early Literacy, or InTEL, an interactive map developed by the nonprofit New America and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, longtime collaborators with Erikson and the TEC Center. InTEL provides information about parenting and early learning programs across the United States that make use of technology to support language development and early literacy. The map identifies programs in all regions of the country and offers a description, evidence of impact, and list of locations for each. Over time, the map will be updated with additional programs as they are identified, and it can also serve as a call to action to develop and launch programs in communities where they don’t exist.

“It’s time to think carefully about how the approaches to technology and learning already underway can be channeled into a long-term strategy for increasing access for families and young children,” said Michael H. Levine, founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

The forum created an opportunity for professionals in the field to share insights and innovative practice, and consider the real-world scenarios that are driving a critical need to think about how to meaningfully integrate technology into the relationships that young children have with adults, whether it be families, teachers, or other early childhood professionals. Among the topics highlighted were these:

  • High quality professional development is needed for educators and administrators become “media mentors” for children and families and become capable of modeling the appropriate use of technology.
  • Meeting families where they are in terms of how and where they use digital technology will better help them support their children’s development. Text messaging and video conferencing have been used effectively to help connect parents with coaching that enables them to help children move up the development ladder.
  • Thinking beyond parents will help reach other adults who provide care for children. For example, grandparents sometimes have different experiences using technology, yet they still can learn to use digital devices appropriately with children.
  • Digital programs must be expanded and localized to meet the needs of specific communities. “It’s about building relationships with families,” said Ursula Johnson, assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s Leaning Institute at the University of Houston. “What does the science say, but how can we also respect the family?”
  • Technology has the potential to deepen existing bonds between adults and children. “Digital technology can be about augmenting and supporting relationships that have already developed face-to-face,” said Diana Rauner, first lady of Illinois and president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund.

A key part of engaging families, though, is ensuring that educators have the knowledge and ability to mindfully integrate technology into school classrooms. Digital devices themselves don’t represent progress for children unless teachers have access to professional development opportunities that help them understand how to effectively use them.

“When used mindfully, technology and digital media hold promise as tools for improving communication with families, strengthening home-school connections, increasing parent involvement, and enhancing family engagement,” Donohue said. “Educators who are well prepared can be media mentors to parents and families to be sure these tools support relationships, healthy child development, and early learning experiences that promote school readiness and success.”